Been meaning to share. This is a personal favorite, and I’m proud to have it at Bandit Fiction.
In the summer, when school was over, we picked mulberries in the yard and spun in circles on the grass. It was soft and living, warm on our bare feet, and every day the sun was lightening your hair. Your mom, she was playing Brian Wilson, and we listened to his brothers intervene.
In the summer, when we were older, we smoked kreteks in the street and the road between your mom’s house and the lake was painted by the moon. It was grey and broken, a hubcap glinted in the switchgrass cracking through the shoulder. Our friends, almost at the water, crashed and laughed against the tyranny of neighbors.
In the fall, when you had gone, I struggled doing pull-ups in the doorjamb, and the attic smelled like pine and lemon. I was thinking of all you’d written on the blue path of my forearm on the gray road to the lake the pale night you first squared the pattern of my breathing and began the long division of your forehead and my shoulder.
In honor of WandaVision ending (I haven’t seen the last episode yet), here’s a piece I wrote after Episode 4. Many thanks to Shawn Berman for giving it a home, and many thanks to the new Existential Poetics newsletter for including it this week!
Yesterday I heard the news about Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “The Old Italians Dying” is one of my favorite poems, and one of the reasons I came back to reading and writing poetry. It’s the first poem I remember liking as an adult (besides Milton’s Nativity Ode.)
There’s a pedantic debate among some Italian American writers and scholars as to whether Ferlinghetti counts as an Italian American. I would never say that’s the only way to think of him, but I don’t understand the need some have to excise him from the tradition. I understand it rhetorically, but I fail to see what it accomplishes. Here’s what I know: yesterday, I found out he passed. Last night I dreamt about my late grandfather, zizis, great uncle. We were trying to put names to the ancestors buried in Campania. I have a poem out on submission right now called “Though My Nonno and Zizis are Dead” and another about my great-grandmother’s uncle dying for Garibaldi (“Briganti”).
We all loving claiming bright lights. I get it. I hedge so much, all the time. It’s exhausting. So here’s a poem that will never not matter to me.
The Old Italians Dying
For years the old Italians have been dying all over America For years the old Italians in faded felt hats have been sunning themselves and dying You have seen them on the benches in the park in Washington Square the old Italians in their black high button shoes the old men in their old felt fedoras with stained hatbands have been dying and dying day by day You have seen them every day in Washington Square San Francisco the slow bell tolls in the morning in the Church of Peter & Paul in the marzipan church on the plaza toward ten in the morning the slow bell tolls in the towers of Peter & Paul and the old men who are still alive sit sunning themselves in a row on the wood benches in the park and watch the processions in and out funerals in the morning weddings in the afternoon slow bell in the morning Fast bell at noon In one door out the other the old men sit there in their hats and watch the coming & going You have seen them the ones who feed the pigeons cutting the stale bread with their thumbs & penknives the ones with old pocketwatches the old ones with gnarled hands and wild eyebrows the ones with the baggy pants with both belt & suspenders the grappa drinkers with teeth like corn the Piemontesi the Genovesi the Siciliani smelling of garlic & pepperoni the ones who loved Mussolini the old fascists the ones who loved Garibaldi the old anarchists reading L’Umanita Nova the ones who loved Sacco & Vanzetti They are almost all gone now They are sitting and waiting their turn and sunning themselves in front of the church over the doors of which is inscribed a phrase which would seem to be unfinished from Dante’s Paradiso about the glory of the One who moves everything… The old men are waiting for it to be finished for their glorious sentence on earth to be finished the slow bell tolls & tolls the pigeons strut about not even thinking of flying the air too heavy with heavy tolling The black hired hearses draw up the black limousines with black windowshades shielding the widows the widows with the black long veils who will outlive them all You have seen them madre de terra, madre di mare The widows climb out of the limousines The family mourners step out in stiff suits The widows walk so slowly up the steps of the cathedral fishnet veils drawn down leaning hard on darkcloth arms Their faces do not fall apart They are merely drawn apart They are still the matriarchs outliving everyone in Little Italys all over America the old dead dagos hauled out in the morning sun that does not mourn for anyone One by one Year by year they are carried out The bell never stops tolling The old Italians with lapstrake faces are hauled out of the hearses by the paid pallbearer in mafioso mourning coats & dark glasses The old dead men are hauled out in their black coffins like small skiffs They enter the true church for the first time in many years in these carved black boats The priests scurry about as if to cast off the lines The other old men still alive on the benches watch it all with their hats on You have seen them sitting there waiting for the bocce ball to stop rolling waiting for the bell for the slow bell to be finished tolling telling the unfinished Paradiso story as seen in an unfinished phrase on the face of a church in a black boat without sails making his final haul
I was given recently 15 bags of books, all kinds, from a newly-retired pastor. The first one I happened to open is a 1923 edition of “The World’s Great Religious Poetry” from Macmillan. How delighted I was to find Carl Sandburg included the volume.
“To A Contemporary Bunkshooter” was apparently originally called “To Billy Sunday,” but changed because of concerns about libel.
It’s powerful, and it’s one of the few plainspoken, modern pieces in this 99-year-old collection. Read it here on Bartleby.